SBIFF Director Roger Durling, Max deGruy, Mimi deGruy and Frances deGruy attend the opening night film, 'Diving Deep: The Life And Times Of Mike deGruy'.

A year ago, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) landed in a moment of community crisis, opening just a few weeks after the January 9 Montecito mudslide horror. Ultimately, the festival succeeded in providing a soothing balm and sense of civic solidarity, capped off by a closing night of all local films.

SBIFF 2019 kicked off last night at the Arlington Theatre with another local story tinged by tragedy, but more importantly one that is triumphant, inspiring, and woven into this grand, 34-year-old festival’s very fabric. The subject of the opening film, Diving Deep, is the late local hero Mike DeGruy, acclaimed nature documentarian with a special passion for the ocean who died during a shoot with James Cameron on February 4, 2012 (during SBIFF, in fact). He was also a vibrant mover and shaker in the film festival’s evolution, especially in this century, and an exuberant lover of life. His life’s work is, as someone said at his memorial, “a human exclamation point.”

And who better to tell deGruy’s remarkable story than his wife and sometime filmmaking collaborator Mimi deGruy? Deftly drawing on an unusual wealth of footage, from his many films, outtakes, home movies, and other sources — alongside glowing commentaries from colleagues including nature film guru David Attenborough — Mimi DeGruy created an infectious and engaging portrait of her late husband. But as an important subplot, the film extends one of Mike deGruy’s primary missions — to inspire love and a protective instinct for the wonder of our oceans. In the film, describing her husband’s risky business and willingness to explore where others feared to tread (and dive), she insisted that “it wasn’t just about a simple adrenaline rush. He had a deeper purpose.”

Santa Barbara City Mayor welcomes the Arlington Theatre audience to the opening night of the 2019 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. (Jan. 30, 2019).
Paul Wellman

Meanwhile, the Arlington Gala opened with a kindly welcome from mayor Cathy Murrillo, before the affable dynamo of an artistic director Rodger Durling offered us an important history lesson. When Durling came on board to head the festival in 2002, bringing zero experience beyond cinema obsessiveness, deGruy was an early supporter, believing Durling would take the festival beyond where it had ever been. True that. And DeGruy’s own “deeper purposes” were to energize the educational component of the festival, leading the “Field Day at the Movies” for underserved youths, family screenings, and other educational features, and creating a new emphasis on nature films in the SBIFF agenda. “It’s amazing,” Durling commented, “the legacy of Mike’s vision to make education the heart of the festival.”

In a video testimony, James Cameron offered a more general observation, calling deGruy “a truly positive guy, fueled by passion for the ocean, and for everything.” Noted oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle, also featured in the film, was onstage extolling deGruy’s: “Here was an individual who burned brightly, and still does. He’s right here.”

Thanks to Diving Deep’s pointed vividness, that notion seemed true enough.

The opening night of the 2019 SBIFF featuring a screening of the Mike DeGruy documentary Diving Deep (Jan. 30, 2019).
Paul Wellman

Going to the Movies: As if by some cosmic-geothermal-cultural design, the rains arrived this morning just in time for SBIFF’s parade of day and night screenings. It’s an ideal time to head downtown, sink into the indoor movie zone of Metro 4, Lobero, or Fiesta 5, and take in cinema from the scores of choices from here and abroad (historically, the “abroad” contingent tend to be the best bets).

An advisable course of action day one of the festival is to soak in screenings by day and save the evening for a convergence of potent — and Oscar nominated — directors at the Ouststanding Directors event at the Arlington at 8 p.m. The Arlington posse includes Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Adam McKay (Vice), Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War), and Alfonso Cuarón (Roma). (Note: Sneak by the Lobero around 6:15 p.m. to hear Alfonso Cuarón Q&A after a free screening of his masterpiece Roma.) It’s an unusually international entourage, with the Mexican Roma and Polish Cold War vying for best 2018 film (sez me and many others), and thus in synch with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s agenda.

Notes from films screened pre-festival:

If you hear about a combination period piece (from third-century China) and martial arts film and your first instinct is to run away and consider other festival options, think again. Zhan Yimou’s surprisingly engrossing, elegantly crafted Shadow (Ying). Yimou, the prominent Chinese director whose filmography includes, Raise the Red Lantern and Ju Dou, has done it again: he’s created a lavish visual and sensory feast, alternating between a stately early passage told in slow symmetrical tableaux-like scenes — in a gray-ish wash-like palette linked to ancient Chinese art — and later blood-soaked choreography of fight scenes. Dramatically speaking, royal power plays and beautifully tangled revenge strategies also help to keep us wide awake — even those of us disinclined to the martial arts screen arts.

From the quirkier corners of American independent cinema comes Freaks, a satirical Apocalyptic sci-fi film directed by Adam Stein and Zach Lipovsky. The film manages to be some trashy fun, despite being over-long and under-wrought, and hampered by a high concepts and CGI needs on a modest budget. In some ambiguous future time and place, some ambiguous infection and global threat has put the populace on alert whenever a mutated human with a bleeding eye shows up. Some of the screen appeal is tendered by the cast’s oldest and youngest — Bruce Dern as Mr. Snowcone, protector of his young daughter, Chloe, played by Lexy Kolker who gives a strong, anchoring performance. Sharp contrasts of suburban life and unfolding cataclysm abound, sometimes with a wink, as when Chloe yells at her time-warping father “Dad, I can’t help mom if she’s frozen!”


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